The joke goes something like this:
"Daryle, why haven't you fix that leaking roof yet?"
"Haven't found the occasion."
"What do you mean?"
"Too dangerous to get up on the roof in the middle of rainstorm, and if it ain't raining, it ain't a problem."
Well, that pretty much describes the problem I have had writing this post. When circumstances called for it, it was too painful to write; and, when things were going OK, it wasn't on my mind.
I knew I was going to be writing this post about a year ago, when a precious friend of ours suffered the tragic loss of her infant son. I had just lost an old and dear friend at the same time, and the combined grief had me sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into space for a while, imagining this huge mountain of pain and loss, and wondering how I was going to get through. But then, in my imagination, I found myself holding a shovel; and I looked around, and from every direction here came other people, and each one of them was holding a shovel too. And I realized that was how I was going to make it through, that's how we always make it through; everybody helps a little, and we cut a road through the mountain.
That describes the mechanism of how we get through grief, but it doesn't go to the deeper issue: Why did this happen? That hasn't been the only tragedy suffered by the various communities I happen to be a member of; people have lost jobs, been hospitalized, marriages have dissolved, family members have died, the list never ends. And in every case, at some point, a wounded person sits in the dark and wonders why.
Now, in one sense of the word, the question of WHY is easy to answer. Why did this fatal car accident happen? It happened because it was night time, the driver was going too fast for conditions, it was raining, he had failed to replace his windshield wipers even though he had been told about it, the county hadn't seen fit to repaint the stripes on the road or install lighting, and that's WHY the accident happened. It is a complete and accurate answer, and it is totally unsatisfying.
It's unsatisfying because when we ask "WHY?", the question isn't "what are the reasons, the circumstances that led to this event," the question is " what does this mean?" More specifically, "what does this mean to me?" We don't care about causes, as much as we care about significance. We want to know, we NEED to know, what difference this is going to make in our lives.
And here's the kicker:
We get to decide this ourselves. And we won't have the answer for about a year.
The meaning of grief is found in the changes that it makes in our lives. I need to give an example here, and the only way I can do that with integrity is to have it be a personal example.
In 1975, while I was stationed overseas in Germany, my grandfather had a heart attack. I had been very close to him; for the first five years of my life, he was the only father figure I had. I flew back to the states on emergency leave, and spent about two weeks with him while he was in the hospital. At the end of that time, his condition had stabilized, so I returned to my duty station in Germany. When I left his hospital room for the last time, I said "I'll see you in August when I get out of the army."
Granddaddy said, quietly, "I don't know about that."
And in my foolish, exuberant, 21 year old enthusiasm, I said "oh, yes, I will!", and I walked out the door, and that was the last time I ever spoke to my grandfather. He suffered his last, fatal heart attack about two weeks later, and I wasn't able to make it home for the funeral. For a while, I beat myself up for not having the last, honest conversation with my grandfather. But later, I was able to process, and learn; and so, when my stepfather died, and later when my father died, with both of them I was able to talk realistically about their health, and about the past, and about the future. That brought times of healing and forgiveness.
And that is what my grandfather's death meant.
But I could've made a different choice. I could've decided, "it's just too painful to lose people that you love. So I'm not gonna get close to anyone again, because they are gonna die."
And if I had made that decision, then THAT would be what my grandfather's death meant.
We always decide what grief means, even if we don't know we're doing it. At some point, after the immediate crisis has passed, whether we think about it openly, or just process it at an unconscious emotional level, we decide "because that happened, this is the way I'm going to think about things, and act about things." And the result of that is the way that particular grief event changes our lives, and that will be what the loss means.
We get to decide what grief means. It will take a year to tell what our decision is.
We can change our decision, too. It's hard work, but if we find that we are much worse off, if we're feeling lost and afraid, and we don't want to be that way anymore, we can decide that we want to change. Sometimes, we can't make the change by our self, and we need to get others involved.
We can make a memorial, without living in a tomb. You don't have to establish a million dollar foundation in order for your loss to have a healthy meaning. Foundations are really nice ways of helping others, but they aren't the only way. For most of us, being able to say "I understand" to a person who is freshly wounded is about as far as it goes, but that happens to be a million dollar statement.
For some of you, this post is timely. For others, you still need people with shovels to come help you dig a road through the mountain. If that's where you are, file this away for a month or two.
And check on me, to see how I'm doing, in about a year.